Firefighter Cancer

Firefighter Cancer Action Plan: pilot program

In 2019, firefighter cancer was the second leading cause of occupational disease-related fatalities in the province.

WorkSafe Saskatchewan commissioned this pilot program with the Firefighter Cancer Consultants after seeing a significant increase in firefighter occupational cancer diagnoses and deaths. The purpose of the pilot program was to gain a better understanding of the current firefighter cancer preventative landscape throughout the province.

There were 15 stations (including eight departments) that participated in this pilot program. The departments ranged from small rural volunteer departments to large metropolitan career departments. The pilot program consisted of policy reviews, fire station inspections and in-depth interviews with fire department members. The interviews gave insight to how the departments function regarding firefighter cancer issues on scene and at the firehouse.

Each participating department received an individualized action plan report. The reports provided practical recommendations based upon the current practices to ensure the departments implement the best practices known to reduce their members’ risk of being diagnosed with an occupational cancer. The complete findings and recommendations were shared amongst Saskatchewan fire chiefs at their April 2019 conference in Moose Jaw.


How firefighters can cut their cancer risk

Several ways fire stations can step up their cancer prevention efforts were identified during the pilot program.

Some of these measures, the “low-hanging fruit,” have minimal or no cost and are relatively easy for firefighters to do. They include:

Firefighters can use the fire hose to spray down their colleagues. “Water alone takes off 42 per cent of contaminants from the outer layer of fire gear,” says Jim Burneka Jr. of Firefighter Cancer Consultants. The use of dish soap and a brush doubles the effectiveness of this.

Ideally, firefighters should remove their uniforms at the fire scene, place them in clear bags (for easy identification) and wash them once they’re back at the station. At the very least, if they return to the station in uniform, they should cover the cab seats with a plastic tarp to curtail contamination.

Showering as soon as possible after a fire.

Firefighters should keep a record of the fires they fought, what they wore and the tasks they performed — helpful information should they ever receive a cancer diagnosis.

The “high-hanging fruit”, or the measures that may take longer to implement, were also identified. They include:

This is extremely important because of carcinogens in smoke, soot and tar. SCBA is heavy, so first responders should take breaks during overhaul and drink plenty of water.

These machines are gentler on PPE than consumer washing machines. “The G-force in residential clothes washers can actually damage gear,” making it less protective, says Burneka Jr.

At the station, gear shouldn’t be stored outside in the apparatus bay, where it can be exposed to diesel exhaust. Instead, it should be hung in a dry, well-ventilated room away from ultraviolet light (UV rays can degrade the material in PPE).

Purchasing backup sets of PPE in case firefighters are dispatched to another fire before their gear has been washed.

Purchasing particulate blocking hoods, which protect the neck from absorbing toxins.

Burneka Jr. favours closed-source hose systems, which suck diesel exhaust from firetrucks and release it into the atmosphere. Fire halls with a pole hole should ensure the hole has a complete seal so exhaust doesn’t enter the living quarters.

It is also recommended that firefighters have annual skin exams and fire departments have their own physicians who are attuned to the special cancer prevention needs of firefighters.

Taking the lead to reduce firefighter cancer risk

Fire halls make improvements following WorkSafe partnership audit

Two fire halls in Saskatchewan, including the Prince Albert Fire Department and Weyburn Fire Services, have made improvements to protect firefighters from the risk of firefighter cancer following WorkSafe’s partnership audit of fire halls last year.

Prince Albert Fire Department

In an article published on the paNOW website, Fire Chief Kris Olsen said that the department has improved the way they decontaminate gear. Some steps include:

  • An exhaust extraction system hooks to the exhaust pipe on the fire trucks. This system filters out harmful gas.
  • Firefighters use a decontamination kit at the scene of the fire for themselves and their gear. This includes brushes and a water hose. Back at the hall, firefighters remove their equipment. The gear is then washed in a special extraction washer that uses a high volume of water.
  • The department is working on ensuring each firefighter has an extra set of equipment to use for the next call.
  • The department has improved their balaclavas, a garment that covers firefighters’ ears and neck.

“That’s one more step we took to protect the guys,” Olsen said in the article.

Weyburn Fire Services

In an article published on the Discover Weyburn website, Fire Chief Simon Almond outlined steps the fire hall is taking after reading the recommendations:

  • Firefighters always wear full bunker gear when attending to a fire. Firefighters use a self-contained breathing apparatus when they attend a fire and they use the apparatus through the overhaul and investigation process.
  • The department washes all personal protective equipment in specialized washers.
  • The fire hall removed the diesel exhaust systems.
  • Firefighters document exposures when attending a fire.

“So we want to make sure that when we go to a fire, we document it,” said Almond in the Discover Weyburn article. “If we know what they’ve been exposed to, we can document it, so that in the future, should something happen they could say on that day they were exposed to this.”